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Jerry Richardson Was “Respected”

Why is it our default assumption that NFL owners are admirable people? And why do we call them “Mister”?

Jerry Richardson, owner of the Carolina Panthers
Jerry Richardson, owner of the Carolina Panthers, arrives to continue negotiations between the NFL and the NFL Players Association in Washington on March 11, 2011.
Joshua Roberts/Reuters

On Sunday, Sports Illustrated reported that at least four employees of the Carolina Panthers have received “significant settlements” from owner Jerry Richardson or from the franchise itself. Per Sports Illustrated, these settlements have stemmed from inappropriate workplace comments and conduct by the 81-year-old Richardson, “including sexually suggestive language and behavior, and on at least one occasion directing a racial slur at an African-American Panthers scout.” The NFL has announced it is investigating Richardson while the Panthers owner released a statement saying he would sell the team after the season is over. On Monday’s episode of Hang Up and Listen, former Green Bay Packers vice president Andrew Brandt joined Stefan Fatsis and Josh Levin for a conversation about Richardson’s behavior, why he was a respected owner, and how the NFL fits into the larger cultural conversation about sexual harassment and inappropriate workplace behavior. A transcript, which has been edited for clarity, is below.

Josh Levin: Jerry Richardson’s behavior, as detailed in Sports Illustrated, is fairly shocking, but I’d say it was more shocking to hear he was planning to sell the team. What we’ve seen in the aftermath of the big Harvey Weinstein story in the New York Times is that people have left or been pushed out of organizations when there is someone who can fire them. But Richardson didn’t have to do this.

Andrew Brandt: The swiftness and of this whole incident is just amazing—that the story comes out over the weekend and by the end of the weekend, he’s selling the team. I have seen Jerry Richardson in league meetings for 10 years. He had, it seems odd saying it now, but kind of a regal presence. He was very respected among his fellow owners—one of the longest-serving owners, and the only owner that played in the NFL. Now we see someone that had tremendous respect among ownership, getting out.

People are pointing to the Donald Sterling example from a few years ago in the NBA, where he was kind of pushed out for his behavior. But to me, this is completely different because that was an owner who was reviled by most of his fellow owners and had gone at it with them and the commissioner for years and years. This is someone admired, respected, and even revered by other owners and the commissioner for all these years, and now in this incredibly swift descent, the team’s for sale.

Stefan Fatsis: At the same time, it’s also possible that other owners and even Roger Goodell didn’t know the way that Richardson was operating the Panthers franchise. He was very paternalistic, very Southern—his employees called him Mister. These are very weird, old behaviors. So, did the NFL take swift action and pressure Richardson to do this to avoid a deeper investigation by media members, by lawyers, by whoever is going to conduct the NFL’s internal probe? He is also 81 years old.
This is not a young man. He was going to sell at some point anyway.

Brandt: We heard that the Panthers were doing their own investigation. All of a sudden it’s a league matter, and all of a sudden he’s selling the team. We don’t even know if the league’s going to continue looking into this rather than just prepare the vetting of potential new owners.

Owner business is pretty well-known within the league. What they’re doing in their other businesses, minority shares, things about taxes and stadiums and estate planning—that all comes up in committee meetings and in full ownership meetings. They know a lot about everyone else’s business. Now, personal business? I’m not as sure. But if there are settlements, if there is known behavior that everyone around the Panthers knows, that is something that does filter out into the rest of ownership. So maybe this was a hidden secret all these years.

Fatsis: You were struggling to find a word there for a second to describe the NFL’s behavior. Does the word cover-up enter the conversation? What did the NFL know? When did it know it? How long had it tolerated Jerry Richardson in the ownership ranks because he was respected, because he brought this team to Carolina 20 years ago, because he was viewed as a former player, a pillar of the community, someone with deep and abiding loyalty to the league and its operations?

Levin: What we’re finding culturally is that someone can be respected and still do the things that Jerry Richardson has paid out settlements for supposedly doing. Look at the descriptions of this behavior: of the inappropriate remarks, of inappropriate touching, of racial slurs, of creating this antebellum sort of environment as a rich, old, white man in a franchise where the talent on the field is predominantly black. I think it’s totally plausible that someone who did all this stuff could be “respected,” especially given the demographics of NFL ownership. All these people look like Jerry Richardson. They have the same amount of money he does, they’re almost all white like he is.

Brandt: We see these words thrown around in sports ownership that maybe aren’t thrown around in other businesses, such as the word owner.  With the optics of predominantly African-American players and predominantly white owners, it’s a word that’s been ingrained in sports culture. And all these owners are called “Mr. So and So.” I was a team executive at a pretty high level, vice president, but it was assumed I would call the owners that as well. Maybe it’s time for that to change, for there to be a little more equality in just addressing people.

Levin: It’s not just employees, to be clear. Jim Nantz calls Robert Kraft “Mr. Kraft” on television. There’s an automatic respect that everyone who’s around sports gives to these men. But it’s always the players who, if the league has a bad image or a bad reputation, it’s blamed on them. But the issues that were brought to light by this Sports Illustrated piece, people should be outraged by this.

Brandt: Another interesting part of this with Richardson himself is that he’s perhaps the most hawkish owner. In collective bargaining negotiations, he would be the one in the room demanding the owners leverage the players towards a better deal—to use their power to really put the players in their place financially. There’s a comment he made, saying to a player, maybe even Peyton Manning …

Levin: “Do I need to help you read a revenue chart, son?”

Brandt: Exactly. And that’s his reputation on the business side. I would think the NFLPA, which has traditionally been on the wrong side of the deal, may appreciate this news that the most hawkish owner is not in the picture anymore. Maybe that’s a bigger picture story. There’s an opportunity here for the NFL with new ownership.

Fatsis: And the NFL needs new ownership. I mean, Jerry Richardson, in addition to the things we’ve discussed, at one point warned Cam Newton not to get any tattoos or piercings. Richardson told that story to Charlie Rose, ironically.

Levin: There was a huge news cycle that we participated in around Cam Newton saying to a woman reporter, “It’s funny to hear a female talk about routes.” He was rightly called out for that and apologized for it. I strongly believe that more people are going to weigh in on the derogatory language Cam Newton used than Jerry Richardson apparently systematically harassing his employees.

I keep coming back to the idea of, why do we respect this guy? He made his money by running a fast food empire, and he presided over Denny’s in the 1990s. If you remember, there were all of these racial incidents at Denny’s, where they had to pay out to black customers. So, again, why do we respect him? Why is it the default assumption that Mr. Richardson is someone who should command our admiration?

Brandt: Earlier, I distinguished Richardson from Donald Sterling. Sterling was known to discriminate in his real estate practices for years and years. NBA owners knew that, the NBA commissioner knew that, and then they had this secret tape, which was the tipping point to get him out. With Richardson, this is a tipping point. Something happened. Who knows how much the NFL knew over the years about race, about misogyny, about treating employees the way he did. And the tipping point happens this weekend, and again, with this incredibly rapid speed, just like Sterling, he’s out.

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